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Does prayer exist, in Washington's eyes?

Despite a big leap in the use of prayer for health among Americans, the government has decided not to study it as a complement or alternative to medicine.

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Here’s a great paradox of our time: Half of the adults in America now call on prayer for healing – or three times the number from the 1990s. Yet the federal government recently decided not to study prayer as an aid to healing – as it had done for years.

Why this sudden disconnect between Washington and half the adult population? Must a spiritual exercise so useful and so common be labeled, as one researcher put it, “parochial” and “unconventional”?

Prayer is certainly central to everyday life in the United States. A large majority of people believe in God, according to polls. And again this year, the US president proclaimed a “national day of prayer” in May.

“We’re seeing a wide variety of prayer use among people with good income and access to medical care,” says Dr. Amy Wachholtz, a psychiatrist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

She and a fellow researcher released a study last month that is the first to look at trends in the use of prayer for health concerns. They saw a substantial increase from 13.7 percent of adults in 1999 to 49 percent only eight years later.

That’s quite a leap, one that can’t be easily ignored. The data for that study, oddly enough, relied on extensive surveys conducted by the National Institutes of Health. Yet while NIH’s 2002 survey data on prayer use was issued in a report on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), the NIH decided not to issue the data on prayer that was collected in 2007.

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